May 25 2021

By Dave Thompson.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970

It was two weeks since Jimi’s last show, at the Temple Stadium in Philadelphia—two weeks, which had seen him wrestle with what his publicist described as an on-going glandular condition and cancel three gigs when it was clear he was losing.  Steve Miller passed him backstage in Philly, and reckoned, “he smelled like he was dying.”  But St Louis, Cincinnati and Columbus’ loss was the Bay Area’s gain.  Because finally he was in Berkeley for a show, which had already set the underground’s pulse beat racing.

If any city in America could claim to possess the heart and soul of student protest, it was Berkeley.  Two years before, in April 1968, Berkeley students rioted after the authorities announced activist Eldridge Cleaver’s lecture course would not count towards their credits—200 were arrested in the ensuing melee. Twelve months later, in May 1969, 2,500 National Guardsmen descended to break up attempts to turn a vacant spot of campus into a People’s Park.  Over a thousand people were injured, one was blinded, and one was killed.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970

A full year on from that, the People’s Park protest was still bubbling on, exacerbated now by new developments in Vietnam, as the war shifted into neighboring Cambodia, and at home, where little more than three weeks had passed since the National Guard shot and killed four protesting students at Kent State, OH.  Days later, the Nixon administration ordered the day-long closure of 136 colleges across the country, Berkeley included, in a desperate bid to counter further student unrest.  Everything seemed to happen in springtime in Berkeley, and the upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert was to be no exception.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970
Original ticket stub from the Berkeley Community Theatre (May 30, 1970)

Already, one group of students was planning to storm the Community Theater to protest the exorbitant charges to see the newly released Woodstock movie – $3.50 to see their own brothers and sisters, prove that utopia could work in America. Others were angry at the ticketing arrangements – no concert in years had attracted so much attention, yet even with two shows scheduled for the day, there were as many fans locked out as would be going in.  

Jimi, though, was happy with the way things were going.  The disappointments earlier in the year, the Band Of Gypsys debacle; the failure of his latest single, “Stepping Stone;” and the months of indecision which wracked him over the kind of musicians he ought to be working with, all that was behind him. 

On April 25, just one month after the Band Of Gypsys live album was released in America, the Cry Of Love tour got underway in Los Angeles with Billy Cox on bass, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Buddy Miles leading the support band.

It was the perfect set-up – so perfect that Jimi didn’t even feel the need to promote the new album onstage.  Just two cuts from Band Of Gypsys‘ five made it into the set that first night, “Machine Gun” and “Message To Love,” and some nights they wouldn’t play that many. For the first time in a long time, since the heyday of the original Experience, when all was smiles and grace with the guys, Hendrix was enjoying his playing and confident in his players.  And it showed.

“If it was up to me, I never would have put it out,” Jimi admitted of Band Of Gypsys.  “It was not a good recording, and I was out of tune on a few things… [But] we owed the record company an album and they were pushing us, so here it is.”  And there it went, as he turned his attention, and the audience’s, to the new material he was still confident would soon be released—“Ezy Ryder,” “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” “Freedom,” “Midnight Lightning,” “Room Full Of Mirrors.”  Wrapped up inside the greatest hits, which he still felt inspired to pull out of thin air – “Purple Haze,” “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” “Fire,” “Red House,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and punctuated by the “Star Spangled Banner,” which already epitomized the spirit of Woodstock, the band could not have been hotter.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970
Original handbill promoting the concerts at Berkeley Community Theatre (May 30, 1970)

The two-week break fell away in the space of one soundcheck on the afternoon of May 30, 1970.  Loose, enthused, reinvigorated after a longer rest any of them had ever expected, the trio slammed into “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Power Of Soul,” the two Band Of Gypsys’ staples, “Room Full Of Mirrors” and “Freedom.”  Even the knowledge that there would be a film crew on site to shoot the entire performance seemed to raise no more than a nod from the band – of course you had to be good when the cameras were rolling, but tonight was going to be better than that – inside and out.

The Berkeley Community Theater doors had barely been opened when the first wave of gatecrashers slammed against the building.  The glass doors held out for a few moments, no more, then shattered and buckled inwards.  Security rushed to the front of the building – and more fans promptly stormed the rear.  Others began scaling the building’s walls themselves; others still made it onto the roof, and started scaling down towards the window, all with just one objective – seeking out even the tiniest crack in the Theater’s defenses, then battering their way in.  

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970

he Woodstock protesters were there as well, calling for a boycott of the movie until admission fees were lowered (or done away with altogether), and seeking their own way into the Theater, so they could present their case to Hendrix in person. Jimi himself probably never even knew they were there – and even if he had, he couldn’t have done anything.  A squadron of police was already at the Theater, guarding the doors, checking tickets, breaking ranks to snatch anyone who looked like they were up to something. San Francisco Chronicle critic John Wasserman saw two officers chase one fan up nearby Grove Street; onlookers, he reported, stood and oinked at them.

“Hendrix really is an exceptional musician.”

~ John Wasserman (San Francisco Chronicle)

There were other distractions, too – Wally Heider’s mobile recording studio parked outside the venue; documentary director Eric Saarinen’s crew filming local color; promotor Bill Graham arguing with the ticketless hordes and wondering how he ever thought venues like this would be easier to operate than the old-time Fillmore.


Jimi Plays Berkeley showcases some of Jimi’s finest ever performances filmed over two concerts at the Berkeley Community Theatre on May 30, 1970.  The film documents the political unrest and student uprisings in Berkeley juxtaposed against such legendary Hendrix live performances of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Hear My Train A Comin’,” “I Don’t Live Today,” “Machine Gun,” “Purple Haze,” “Star Spangled Banner” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).”

Backstage, things were calmer.  Just.  While Saarinen made the final checks of his equipment, Jimi’s companion of the evening, Devon Wilson, was apparently checking everyone else’s – according to the watching Carlos Santana, “at that time there was… ‘lady swapping,’ and [Devon] would check the rounds, and he knew that she was checking the rounds.”  Santana felt awkward and drifted into a corner – it was sad, he reflected later, “I wanted to ask Jimi about everything and anything,” but given the scene which seemed to unfold every time he got the opportunity… “it was kinda awkward.”  He moved away to get ready for the show; Jimi, Mitch and Billy got together to do the same.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970

Two shows, two sets, and anybody who managed to stay around for both of them would have been two-thirds of the way through the second performance before they heard even one song duplicated.

“Fire” opened the first performance, then it was into “Johnny B. Goode,” that same spellbinding version which turned up on the posthumous Hendrix In The West (1972) live album, where you can hear his teeth hitting the strings, as he raised the guitar to his mouth and did things which most of the onlookers had only ever read about. 

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970
Hendrix In The West (1972/2011)

“Hendrix really is an exceptional musician,” critic Wasserman wrote that evening.  “He sang adequately and generally unintelligibly, slammed the neck up and down the microphone stand, went on his knees, to his back, picked with his teeth and indicated on a couple of occasions, that the guitar was not so much a guitar, as an appendage of his lower body.”

A majestic “Here My Train A Comin’,” so aptly reinvented as “Getting My Heart Back Together Again,” followed; a brittle “Foxey Lady;” then a revelatory “Machine Gun” – Buddy Miles used to take the title too literally, harshly spraying out his snare beats. Mitch took things easier… no, not easier, just less theatrically, a military roll, a funeral march, and to an audience still shocked by the events at Kent State – how easily the slaughter could have happened to them — that was far more appropriate.

“Message To Love” and “Red House” rose amid the new songs, “Freedom” and “Ezy Ryder,” and then it was into the closing salvo, a blazing “Star Spangled Banner,” no longer electrified parody, now a statement of bitter intent and betrayal. Servicemen killed in the line of duty returned home to be draped in their nation’s flag.  Protestors who perished for the truths they held as holy would be seen off with a few tear-stained handkerchiefs, and the only gun salute they ever received would be the ones which took their lives.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970

Whether he meant it or not, when Hendrix played the “Star Spangled Banner,” he was taking it back for the people who deserved it. “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” closed the show, just as they did most nights; then one crowd filed out, another rushed in, security checked for any ticketless dodgers, and with one hour down, there was one more to go “Straight Ahead,” “Hey Baby (New Rising Sun),” “Lover Man,” “Stone Free,” “Hey Joe,” “I Don’t Live Today” – in terms of song recognition, the set was maybe weaker than its predecessor.  In terms of power, though, it was far, far stronger, with the band picking up on the vibe of the earlier audience and saving the very best until last – “Machine Gun,” even more potent and doom-laden than it was first time around; “Foxey Lady,” to maybe lighten the mood a little, and then another “Star Spangled Banner,” heavier, harder, screaming defiance.  Woodstock, Joni Mitchell had sung, took the children back to the garden.  Now Jimi was giving them the city again.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970
Jimi Plays Berkeley (1971/2003/2012)

Again, “Purple Haze” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” wrapped things up; and then it was all over.  The audience filed out, past the cops who looked on, but didn’t make a move against them; past the handful of disgruntled movie fans who still stood idly round on the street.  The mobile studio drove away, Wally Heider and engineer Abe Jacob secure in the knowledge that they’d taped a piece of living history.  And Eric Saarinen packed up his cameras – now he was off to edit the footage of Jimi Plays Berkeley and battle… oh, how he battled… with Mike Jeffery over payment for his services.  

In fact, the only people who didn’t seem to be taking at least a little piece of Berkeley away with them were Jimi, Mitch and Billy.  They had another few days off before the tour resumed, in Dallas, TX, on June 5, and they were going to make the most of it.  The revolution could look after itself until then.

The Battle For Berkeley – May 30, 1970
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Live At Berkeley (2003/2012)

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